sunday, december 23, the present
The bullet tore into Cotton Malone’s left shoulder.
He fought to ignore the pain and focused on the plaza. People rushed in all directions. Horns blared. Tires squealed. Marines guarding the nearby American embassy reacted to the chaos, but were too far away to help. Bodies were strewn about. How many? Eight? Ten? No. More. A young man and woman lay at contorted angles on a nearby patch of oily asphalt, the man’s eyes frozen open, alight with shock—the woman, facedown, gushing blood. Malone had spotted two gunmen and immediately shot them both, but never saw the third, who’d clipped him with a single round and was now trying to flee, using panicked bystanders for cover.
Dammit, the wound hurt. Fear struck his face like a wave of fire. His legs went limp as he fought to raise his right arm. The Beretta seemed to weigh tons, not ounces.
Pain jarred his senses. He sucked deep breaths of sulfur-laced air and finally forced his finger to work the trigger, which only squeaked, and did not fire.
More squeaks could be heard as he tried to fire again.
Then the world dissolved to black.
Malone awoke, cleared the dream from his mind—one that had recurred many times over the past two years—and studied the bedside clock.
He was lying atop the bed in his apartment, the nightstand’s lamp still on from when he’d plopped down two hours ago.
Something had roused him. A sound. Part of the dream from Mexico City, yet not.
He heard it again.
Three squeaks in quick succession.
His building was 17th century, completely remodeled a few months ago. From the second to the third floor the new wooden risers now announced themselves in a precise order, like keys on a piano.
Which meant someone was there.
He reached beneath the bed and found the rucksack he always kept at the ready from his Magellan Billet days. Inside, his right hand gripped the Beretta, the same one from Mexico City, a round already chambered.
Another habit he was glad he hadn’t shucked.
He crept from the bedroom.
His fourth-floor apartment was less than a thousand square feet. Besides the bedroom, there was a den, kitchen, bath, and several closets. Lights burned in the den, where a doorway opened to the stairway. His bookshop consumed the ground floor, and the second and third floors were used exclusively for storage and work space.
He found the doorway and hugged the inner jamb.
No sound had revealed his advance, as he’d kept his steps light and his shoes to the carpet runners. He still wore his clothes from yesterday. He’d worked late last night after a busy Saturday before Christmas. It was good to be a bookseller again. That was supposedly his profession now. So why was he holding a gun in the middle of the night, every one of his senses telling him danger was nearby?
He risked a glance through the doorway. Stairs led to a landing, then angled downward. He’d switched off the lights earlier before climbing up for the night, and there were no three-way switches. He cursed himself for not including some during the remodeling. One thing that had been added was a metal banister lining the stair’s outer edge.
He fled the apartment and slid down the slick brass rail to the next landing. No sense announcing his presence with more creaks from other wooden risers.
Carefully, he glanced down into the void.
Dark and quiet.
He slid to the next landing and worked his way around to where he could spy the third floor. Amber lights from Højbro Plads leaked in through the building’s front windows and lit the space beyond the doorway with an orange halo. He kept his inventory there—books bought from people who, every day, lugged them in by the boxload. “Buy for cents, sell for euros.” That was the used-book business. Do it enough and you made money. Even better, every once in a while a real treasure arrived inside one of the boxes. Those he kept on the second floor, in a locked room. So unless someone had forced that door, whoever was here had fled into the open third floor.
He slid down the last railing and assumed a position outside the third-floor doorway. The room beyond, maybe forty by twenty feet, was littered with boxes stacked several feet high.
“What do you want?” he asked, his back pressed to the outer wall.
He wondered if it had only been the dream that had sparked his alert. Twelve years as a Justice Department agent had certainly stamped paranoia on his personality, and the last two weeks had taken a toll—one he hadn’t bargained for but had accepted as the price of truth.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’m going back upstairs. Whoever you are, if you want something, come on up. If not, get the hell out of my shop.”
He started for the stairs.
“I came to see you,” a male said from inside the storage room.
He stopped and noted the voice’s nuances. Young. Late twenties, early thirties. American, with a trace of an accent. And calm. Just matter-of-fact.
“So you break into my shop?”
“I had to.”
The voice was close now, just on the other side of the doorway. He retreated from the wall and aimed the gun, waiting for the speaker to show himself.
A shadowy form appeared in the doorway.
Medium height, thin, wearing a waist-length coat. Short hair. Hands at his sides, both empty. The face blocked by the night.
He kept the gun aimed and said, “I need a name.”
“What do you want?”
“Henrik Thorvaldsen is in trouble.”
“What else is new?”
“People are coming to kill him.”
“We have to get to Thorvaldsen.”
He kept the gun aimed, finger on the trigger. If Sam Collins so much as shuddered he’d cut him down. But he had a feeling, the sort agents acquired through hard-fought experience, one that told him this young man was not lying.
“What people?” he asked again.
“We need to go to him.”
He heard glass break from below.
“Another thing,” Sam Collins said. “Those people. They’re coming after me, too.”
Graham Ashby stood atop the Place du Dujon and admired the tranquil harbor. Around him, crumbly pastel houses were stacked like crates among churches, the olden structures overshadowed by the plain stone tower that had become his perch. His yacht, Archimedes, lay at anchor half a kilometer away in the Vieux Port. He admired its sleek, illuminated silhouette against the silvery water. Winter’s second night had spawned a cool dry wind from the north that swept across Bastia. A holiday stillness hung heavy, Christmas was only two days away, but he could not care less.
The Terra Nova, once Bastia’s center of military and administrative activity, had now become a quarter of affluence with lofty apartments and trendy shops lining a maze of cobbled streets. A few years ago, he’d almost invested in the boom, but decided against it. Real estate, especially along the Mediterranean shoreline, no longer brought the return it once had.
He gazed northeast at the Jetée du Dragon, an artificial quay that had not existed just a few decades ago. To build it, engineers had destroyed a giant lion-shaped rock dubbed the Leone, which once blocked the harbor and had figured prominently in many pre-twentieth-century engravings. When Archimedes had cruised into the protected waters two hours ago, he’d quickly spotted the unlit castle keep upon which he now stood—built by the island’s 14th century Genoese governors—and wondered if tonight would be the night.
He hoped so.
Corsica was not one of his favorite places. Nothing but a mountain springing from the sea, 115 miles long, 52 miles wide, 5,500 square miles, 600 miles of coast. Its geography varied from alpine peaks to deep gorges, pine forests, glacial lakes, pastures, fertile valleys, and even some desert. At one time or another Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Aragonese, Italians, Brits, and the French had conquered, but none had ever subjugated the island’s rebellious spirit.
Another reason why he’d passed on investing. Far too many variables in this unruly French département.
The industrious Genoese founded Bastia in 1380 and built fortresses to protect it, his tower perch one of the last remaining. The town had served as the capital of the island until 1791, when Napoleon decided that his birthplace, Ajaccio, in the south, would be better. He knew the locals had still not forgiven the little emperor for that transgression.
He buttoned his Armani overcoat and stood close to a medieval parapet. His tailored shirt, trousers, and sweater clung to his fifty-eight-year-old frame with a reassuring feel. He bought all his ensembles at Kingston & Knight, as had his father and grandfather. Yesterday a London barber had spent half an hour trimming his gray mane, eliminating those pale waves that seemed to make him look older. He was proud at how he retained the appearance and vigor of a more youthful man and, as he continued to gaze out past a dark Bastia, at the Tyrrhe?nian Sea, he savored the satisfaction of a man who’d truly arrived.
He glanced at his watch.
He’d come to solve a mystery, one that had tantalized treasure hunters for more than sixty years, and he detested tardiness.
He heard footsteps from the nearby staircase that angled its way twenty meters upward. During the day, tourists climbed to gawk at the scenery and snap pictures. At this hour no one visited.
A man appeared in the weak light.
He was small, with a headful of bushy hair. Two deep lines cut the flesh from above the nostrils to his mouth. His skin was as brown as a walnut shell, the dark pigments heightened by a white mustache.
And he was dressed like a cleric.
The skirts of a black soutane swished as he walked closer.
“Lord Ashby, I apologize for my lateness, but it could not be helped.”
“A priest?” he asked, pointing to the robe.
“I thought a disguise best for tonight. Few ask questions of them.” The man grabbed a few breaths, winded from the climb.
Ashby had selected this hour with great care and timed his arrival with English precision. But everything was now out of kilter by nearly half an hour.
“I detest unpleasantness,” he said, “but sometimes a frank, face-to-face discussion is necessary.” He pointed a finger. “You, sir, are a liar.”
“That I am. I freely admit.”
“You cost me time and money, neither of which I like to expend.”
“Unfortunately, Lord Ashby, I find myself in short supply of both.” The man paused. “And I knew you needed my help.”
Last time he’d allowed this man to learn too much.
Something had happened in Corsica on September 15, 1943. Six crates were brought west from Italy by boat. Some said they were dumped into the sea, near Bastia, others believed they were hauled ashore. All accounts agreed that five Germans participated. Four of them were court-martialed for leaving the treasure in a place that would soon be in Allied hands, and they were shot. The fifth was exonerated. Unfortunately he was not privy to the final hiding place, so he searched in vain for the rest of his life.
As had many others.
“Lies are all the weapons I possess,” the Corsican made clear. “It’s what keeps powerful men like you at bay.”
“I dare say, I’m not much older than you. Though my status is not as infamous. Quite a reputation you have, Lord Ashby.”
He acknowledged the observation with a nod. He understood what an image could do to, and for, a person. His family had, for three centuries, possessed a controlling interest in one of England’s oldest lending institutions. He was now the sole holder of that interest. The British press once described his luminous gray eyes, Roman nose, and flick of a smile as the visage of an aristocrat. A reporter a few years ago labeled him imposing, while another described him as swarthy and saturnine. He didn’t necessarily mind the reference to his dark complexion—something his half-Turkish mother had bestowed upon him—but it bothered him that he might be regarded as sullen and morose.
“I assure you, good sir,” he said. “I am not a man you should fear.”
The Corsican laughed. “I should hope not. Violence would accomplish nothing. After all, you seek Rommel’s gold. Quite a treasure. And I might know where it waits.”
This man was as obtrusive as he was observant. But he was also an admitted liar. “You led me on a tangent.”
The dark form laughed. “You were pushing hard. I can’t afford any public attention. Others could know. This is a small island and, if we find this treasure, I want to be able to keep my portion.”
This man worked for the Assemblée de Corse, out of Ajaccio. A minor official in the Corsican regional government, who possessed convenient access to a great deal of information.
“And who would take what we find from us?” he asked.
“People here, in Bastia, who continue to search. More who live in France and Italy. Men have died for this treasure.”
This fool apparently preferred conversations to move slowly, offering mere hints and suggestions, leading by tiny degrees to his point.
But Ashby did not have the time.
He signaled and another man exited the stairway. He wore a charcoal overcoat that blended well with his stiff gray hair. His eyes were piercing, his thin face tapered to a pointed chin. He walked straight to the Corsican and stopped.
“This is Mr. Guildhall,” Ashby said. “Perhaps you recall him from our last visit?”
The Corsican extended his hand, but Guildhall kept his hands in his coat pockets.
“I do,” the Corsican said. “Does he ever smile?”
Ashby shook his head. “Terrible thing. A few years ago Mr. Guildhall was involved in a nasty altercation, during which his face and neck were slashed. He healed, as you can see, but the lasting effect was nerve damage that prevents the muscles in his face from fully functioning. Hence, no smile.”
“And the person who slashed him?”
“Ah, an excellent inquiry. Quite dead. Broken neck.”
He saw that his point had been made, so he turned to Guildhall and asked, “What did you find?”
His employee removed a small volume from his pocket and handed it over. In the weak light he noted the faded title, in French. Napoleon, From the Tuileries to St. Helena. One of countless memoirs that had appeared in print after Napoleon died in 1821.
“How . . . did you get that?” the Corsican asked.
From the Hardcover edition.